Benedito José Tobias

Giants and Pygmies, 1934

Gigantes e pigmeus [Giants and Pygmies] (1934) by Benedito José TobiasPinacoteca de São Paulo

Little is known about the life and work of Benedito José Tobias, one of the rare Afro-descendant artists who circulated in the cultural environments of São Paulo to be considered a “scholar” in the first half of the 20th century.

The existing records of his public activity show, for example, participation and awards in several editions of the Salão Paulista de Belas Artes, between 1934 and 1952.

This period also seems to have been the most productive of his trajectory. And from what is known so far from his work, two main groups of paintings stand out: one composed of portraits of black men and women, the other formed by urban landscapes of São Paulo.

This second set includes Giants and Pygmies. The title refers in a critical and witty manner, at the same time, to the contrasts that his image presents between, on the one hand...

...the grandeur of mansions and townhouses and, on the other...

...the precariousness of houses built in improvisation and in the background of land. (now known as “draws”, in so Brazilian backyards) of dirt.

The proximity between these buildings and the disparity in housing conditions say a lot about São Paulo. First, they inform about the disorderly and unplanned growth of the city, at the beginning of the 20th century.

By extension, these differences also express the inequality that continues to push part of the São Paulo population to vulnerable lands, in areas lacking infrastructure and basic sanitation.

Another feature that draws attention in this painting by Benedito José Tobias is the point of view (from above and from a distance) capable of covering both aspects of the private sphere, which includes, here and there, corners of domesticity, as well as the impersonal and anonymous of life in São Paulo.

By the way, there are only two people represented in the scene: a woman apparently involved with her housework, in the lower left corner of the screen...

...and a man, a passerby, walking alone, on an empty street, almost in the center of the image.

Other than that, the human presence indexes are spread over clotheslines and clothes extended for drying - again, in the lower left corner of the painting...

...then, in a window and balcony to the right of the image...

...and, finally, in the yellow house located to the left of a tower.

The protagonism of the work is, even, in the surroundings of human figures, in the giants and pygmies of architecture: from the “bottom” houses, in the very foreground... the apparently residential building that emerges in the distance.

In the 1930s and 1940s, several artists active in São Paulo used to go around the city to paint outdoors, sometimes in groups and especially on weekends. Artists like Alfredo Volpi and Francisco Rebolo made several paintings in the so-called "suburbs" of Morumbi, Cambuci and Canindé, for example, neighborhoods practically open at that time, with a few houses whose families reconciled urban and rural ways of life.

Giants and Pygmies, on the other hand, probably represent a part of downtown São Paulo, where the typical mansions of eclectic architecture, built between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, gradually started to live with fragile houses and skyscrapers.

The year of realization of this painting, 1934, is the same as the opening of the Martinelli Building, the tallest building in the city so far, with 28 floors and 105 meters high.

It was also in this central region that Benedito Tobias produced most of his urban scenes, able to explain, in a singular and pioneering way, the social inequalities of São Paulo.

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